A Bigger Splash, directed by Luca Guadagnino, screenplay by David Kajganich, is an acting tour de force starring Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson. The film takes place on Pantelleria between Italy and the coast of Africa. The island plays an intriguing and subtle character in the film, especially as a contrasting presence to the main characters who are well off and luxuriating in a high end private villa on the island getaway to get some R and R during the summer.
However, the solitude which rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), and her lover Paul de Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), have sought comes to a screeching halt when Marianne’s dynamic and charismatic former lover, record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), drops by to pay her and his former friend Paul a visit. Harry, all brio, enthusiasm, and smoldering effervescence is accompanied by his recently discovered teenage daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), from one of his many liaisons. What results evolves from frolic to complicated subterranean desires bursting into the mix of the relationships between and among the four individuals. After they encounter each others’ comic, psychological, and emotional machinations on this volcanic rock between continents, none of them are the same again.
In a roundtable with six journalists held at the Park Hyatt for the film’s press day in NYC, Tilda Swinton discussed her character choices, Pantelleria, and the complexities of the relationships between and among the other characters.
So how does it feel to be fully verbal again?
You know it’s great being quiet. I much prefer it (she laughs). It’s a very natural thing to just be quiet.
Shooting at Pantelleria seemed like a great location.
It’s a really extraordinary place. It sort of vibrates. First of all, it’s in a very particular part of the world. It’s Italian. it’s under Italian governance, but it’s basically Africa. And it has this very strong energy. It has these two winds coming at you all day long, which is great for hairdressers on film shoots. Yeah. It kind of does things to you. Everybody has amazing dreams, all the time. It’s a little bit like being on a ship. That was Luca’s (director), first decision really to take on this proposal of the Jacques Deray film which was set in the South of France. He figured out that if he could do it on this pulsating, volcanic, weird rock, then he could do it. It was an amazing place to be for a summer.
I thought what was wonderful was the place where it was shot, a volcanic rock hinting at the emotions of the individuals which are volcanic. Could you discuss that?
Well, you’re absolutely right, and I agree with you that there is something about these particular people. They are not just any old tourists. These people are on this pinnacle of luxury on this incredible high end palace on this really intense rather brutal place which has this incredibly brutal history as is mentioned in certain parts of the film. It’s where slaves used to be processed. And to a certain extent still has a brutality to it. The whole refugee crisis has been going on for years there…the world’s neediest which we have taken notice of in the last couple of years. But that has been the history of both Lampadusa and Pantelleria for years. So the tension there is bittersweet. And you have these people in this incredibly luxurious position, you know with Hermes bath towels, etc. And here is this rock star who is in this retreat perched on top, like being on top of a shark fin. That’s what it feels like when you are there. At any moment that place could erupt in several different ways. If the wind blows too strongly you’re not going to get any supplies for a while. It’s a tough one. So that feeling of being balanced very precariously which defines the relationships between these people came out of the place.
The Jacques Deray film (La Piscene was a partial inspiration for the film)…did you get to view it before you worked on this?
No, we didn’t because we didn’t set out to do a remake. Studio Canal proposed it to Luca as a kind of, “Would you like to look again at that film?” But when Luca located the film somewhere so completely different, he took the film to different places entirely. Our film doesn’t end up where that film ends up. Let’s say it’s a cover of that film, but it’s definitely spun in a different way. So, no, we didn’t study it. I did see it again recently and I noticed how David Kajganich, the writer, had all sorts of lines in it that were similar, in fact identical. But we didn’t feel hampered by the other film, and we didn’t feel our duty was to remake anything. We were kind of riffing.
I think the characters are very different. What you have done with your character is absolutely amazing; the decision that you made about not speaking. How did that challenge you in ways that you had not been challenged before in your “instrument?”
It was fascinating. It was a sort of gauntlet that I threw down to myself because I’m so interested in communication and how difficult it is and I’m much more interested in people finding it difficult to communicate than people communicating easily. I don’t really believe in easy communication. I think it’s a kind of, you know people, particularly in talky movies the impression is that it’s very easy to be understood and that people listen really well. I don’t believe that people listen as well as they show you they do in the movies. So I like to play with the idea with inarticulacy and mess and confusion and misunderstanding. So to have to play this woman who couldn’t speak was complex.
On the one hand it was a relief for her and a great relief for me. And though it doesn’t sound like it today, I don’t really like to speak that much. I’m quite a quiet person. And it was a nice place to sit while we shot, not having to learn lines. (we laugh) Although it did feel challenging. We set ourselves a project, Luca and I, that she would speak when she really had to, given that I really shouldn’t have (Marianne is recovering from voice surgery and if she speaks she can damage her voice). There’s this moment when Penelope says, “Can’t talk, or won’t talk?” It’s complicated because Marianne’s kind of happy not to talk at this time. She is in mourning and she’s kind of checking out a bit. And when Harry shows up she doesn’t want to talk to him. It’s not just that she can’t talk, she kind of hides behind that excuse.
But there were these moments when the talk just burst out. Asking for a daiquiri or wanting to say to Harry, “I am so happy. I will always be grateful to you for Paul.” These were things that she couldn’t not say. So that was really the challenge. I remember reading or hearing someone on a talk show, a sex therapist. There was a couple who had lost their mojo. And the therapist said, “Just don’t have sex with each other. Refuse to have sex with each other.” Within a week, they were crazy about each other. Refuse…take it away. So taking away that means of communication, I kept feeling that I wanted to say things. That was interesting…that was a challenge.
How did you experience the film’s sexuality? There is so much chemistry between the characters.
Well, the place contributed. Again, we were all on a summer holiday, in and out of pools with the sun on our skin and that’s part of that experience. Obviously, it’s not part of the experience of people who are working or building roads on Pantelleria. But the luxury and overly privileged holiday makers on Pantelleria? That’s the story. You’re there to be in the sun and be all about showing your skin. It was like a dance. In many ways it was choreographed. The way in which everybody lounged around. It was a holiday thing. I don’t know. I’m happy to say I’ve never been on a holiday like that and I’ve never been on a holiday with someone who has arrived uninvited. But we’re all having a great time. We’re on holiday. It’s fabulous. We’re in this amazing house. It’s got this sort of choreographic sense to it. Everybody’s going out of their way to walk down to the pool in their bathing suits. It’s a sensual business. People showing off how fast they can swim. It was very much part of the material of the film, that sensuality.
The character Harry was a disgusting individual. Just judging by the way that you’re speaking and the opinions you have, I would imagine if you knew that person in reality that you wouldn’t like that person. What was going through your mind both when you read the script and when you were interacting…not your character, but within your true self, with that particular characterization.
Yeah, he’s a real challenge and a challenge to be around. And the way Ralph plays him, he made it his task, particularly with Marianne, to bait her to speak. It’s a kind of violence to speak, a violence to her. He’s a sadist in a way. And it’s a complicated thing because, well, you’ll be speaking to him so I’m sure he’ll discuss this. Who knows? He looks like a sadist. He looks like a total trouble maker and nightmare. But then he’s doing his thing. He’s actually quite heartbroken and certainly heartbroken about losing Marianne. He’s pretty lost in his life and looking for a way of rebooting himself. And he’s totally in denial about his aging and all of that.
So of course, one would hope one would be able to say “I would have compassion.” But he’s a real challenge. He’s so annoying, so annoying. He talks all the time. And particularly for Paul and Marianne who have gone to this place. And you see in the first section, no one is talking to anybody. It’s just about being peaceful and being authentic. Harry brings to her this thing that she’s tried to get away from which is drama. You see her standing on the stage in front of 70,000 people. You kind of have the sense that she’s choosing to step away from that. She wants to get away from sequined jumpsuits and the 70,000 people and go somewhere where she can hear herself and be authentic. But Harry follows her…like a dog she can’t get rid of. He brings this drama back to her which he makes really annoying. I’m trying to think. Do I know anybody quite that annoying? (we laugh) If I’ve met anyone that annoying I think I’d side-step them.
Aren’t there a lot of people in this business that are annoying?
I don’t hang out in the business enough to be annoyed.
Well, on the creative side. People are so A personality driven.
Oh, I’m sure you’re right. I’m just trying to think. I have such a low pain threshold. I’m quite good at side stepping them. I wouldn’t hang around. Of course, this is the nightmare of the holiday on the island. She can’t side step him and of course, she makes this mistake of inviting him to stay. And she’s a bit drunk when she makes that mistake. If she just said, “Go to the hotel and I’ll see you in town,” I don’t think it would go the way it did.
Speaking of characterization, Marianne had a previous relationship with him and a life with him. How did that inform your role?
There’s that one flashback actually two flashbacks of them. One of them in the recording studio and then there’s that other flashback of them at the party where you see them taking coke together and being very matched. That’s what I take from that section. You get the sense that, I think this is another thing about her being silent now. I get the sense that they had a very garrulous relationship. That she was just as, if not as mouthy as he is. They were a match and it must be very strange for him to be back with her because he has to do double. He has to do all the talking because normally, (sound of the timer goes off). Oh God, it’s the nell of death (we laugh). He has to over reve because she’s not giving anything. So I have the sense that they had a very dynamic, super medicated relationship. And it was a bit of a nightmare, frankly. And she stepped away from it, and as he says at a certain point when they’re talking, he says, “I used to screw around and I made it really difficult for you.” I think their relationship was pretty toxic.
A Bigger Splash opens on May 4th.